When it comes to Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, I am of two minds. My first mind was captivated by the elaborate and imaginative stagecraft. The scenic design by Mimi Lien reaches all the way to the back row of the theater, with drapery-covered walls dotted by family portraits. Throughout the mezzanine, golden end tables adorned with artificial candlelight are placed every fourth seat. Down below, the stage is divided into several sections representing Pierre’s study as well as the salons and ballrooms of other aristocratic homes in Moscow. Each area has audience and orchestra members interspersed. A maze of platforms and ramps allow dancers and singers to encircle viewers with ecstatic performance. This has the added benefit of ensuring an immersive experience no matter where you sit. For Rachel Chavkin’s inspired undertaking of direction alone, I would recommend this upbeat event to some.
However, my second mind was numbed by Dave Malloy’s pedantic and instantly forgettable musical numbers. I have experience playing in a Renaissance orchestra and I’ve studied jazz piano, so I’m pretty good at picking up a tune. Yet there was not one number from this show that I could remember by the time I reached 7th Avenue. Using phrases from Russian folk tunes is clever, but it is simply irritating when long stretches of dialogue are set to the same five note pattern.
I attended on a night that Josh Groban was unavailable. His standby Scott Strangland, who sang the role of Pierre in Boston, is a more solid figure with a similar vocal style. (To those thinking perhaps this is why I am less praiseful than some, I quickly add that this is very much an ensemble piece.) Standouts in the cast include the expressive Amber Gray who purrs as Hélène a manipulative adulteress and a delicious Lucas Steele as her rakish brother Anatole. Both are holdovers from the Ars Nova production. On the other end of the spectrum is Grace McLean who for her Broadway debut has been taught that a pitchy screech is a great way to communicate high emotion in her role as matron Marya D.
To the credit of the entire cast, I heard each and every line. I would still recommend that anyone unfamiliar with War and Peace read the synopsis and study the family tree provided in the program. The primary source for the libretto is a 1922 translation by Aylmer and Louise Maude. Covering a mere 70 pages of the classic work, the plot stops at a major turning point for the lead characters, which isn’t a very satisfying place at which to end. While I admire Malloy’s ambition, his lyrics are insipid with little clever turns of phrase beyond the opening number. I don’t expect everyone to be Lin-Manuel, but I did anticipate shrewder storytelling.
There are times when Bradley King’s lighting and Nicholas Pope’s sound are so frantic their design feels like being on a date with someone who’s already won you over but keeps trying so hard that you start questioning your initial impressions. Paloma Young’s costume topped off with Leah J. Loukas’s hair and wig design are as period-punk-playful as necessary to support Ms. Chavkin’s creative vision as well as the exuberant movement of the ensemble.
Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 is certainly a joyful one-of-a-kind experience though built around a sadly bland musical score. It is playing at the newly curtailed and quite comfortable Imperial Theater. A new block of tickets through September of 2017 is on sale at http://greatcometbroadway.com.